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French Version

Downtown businesses cry for help

Shop owners demand tax break to ease impact of lost business

Shop owners in Downtown Beirut - where business has suffered substantial losses since February 2005 - pleaded with officials Friday to relocate the national dialogue and to exempt them from taxes.

"Our losses have exceeded millions of dollars since the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri and over 3,000 employees might lose their jobs if this situation continues for another three months," said Paul Ariss, the head of the Syndicate of owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Pastries.

Ariss was speaking during a news conference at the Press Federation on Friday.

The Downtown area, which began attracting investments once again in the early 1990s, contributing to a return of affluent Arab and international investors, has been almost deserted since Hariri's murder.

Shops and restaurants there were forced to close for a total of 90 days since February 2005, affecting not only these businesses but also the national economy.

"When an Arab tourist knows that he can't come to Downtown Beirut, he simply changes his destination and goes to another country," added Ariss.

In some businesses, like Virgin Megastores, losses reached 50 percent during 2005, and 30 percent since the beginning of this year, according to CEO Jihad Murr.

He said that on an average day 3,000 shoppers visit his store, while last week during the second round of the national talks they "only received three people."

Ariss predicted an economic collapse in the tourism sector, which was so far delayed by the 2005 financial reserve of these businesses.

Ariss also said Lebanon is once again failing to seize the economic opportunity posed by the economic slowdown in Dubai due to the high living cost there, and rising rents.

"People in Dubai and mainly the Lebanese are thinking about moving back to Lebanon, but the government is not doing anything to encourage them and instead political bickering intensifies," said Ariss.

Syndicate member Khaled Harmoush said the institution has repeatedly pleaded with Lebanese leaders to move their national dialogue to another location, but their response was "you have to sacrifice."

"And we have, but that can't be done forever, we are losing our businesses after we have contributed in bringing the area back to life," said Harmoush.

Harmoush and his colleagues demanded the government remove the check point placed in front of the ESCWA headquarters as it poses a major obstacle for tourists and to ease security restrictions during Cabinet's sessions.

"The security measures are exaggerated ... tourists feel a state of war when they walk by Downtown," said Harmoush.

In addition to that they requested to be exempted from taxes for the years 2005 and 2006 as well as from Solidere's maintenance charge and granted two months' free rent.

"We don't want compensation, just to be exempted from taxes," said Harmoush.

Harmoush and Ariss further complained that Solidere - "which has pledged to stand by them when the economy deteriorated" - hasn't responded to their grieving calls.

"We want to know why Solidere isn't standing by us. What does it want? It wants us to

close down our businesses? We might as well and just hand the officials the keys to our businesses and go home," said Ariss.

Beirut 27-03-2006
Nada Bakri
The Daily Star

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